Almanac Cricket: Getting out of jail – Lower Eltham’s relegation fight

Heads hang bowed, stretching down from limp necks. An uncomfortable silence hangs over the dusty changerooms, clinging to the sweat and the decaying beer scent. Fingernails are picked. Frowns sit painted on faces.


Greg Mitchell pushes an open basket of beers into the middle of the communion. Crownies. An olive branch to his beleaguered players. Greg is the President of Lower Eltham Cricket Club; my second home over the summer months of nearly 15 years. Lower Eltham isn’t a big club in the Diamond Valley Cricket Association (DVCA). Many others have more teams, more players and more money. But Lower Eltham has a remarkable run of success in the Barclay Shield – the DVCA’s highest grade.


This record includes numerous premierships, which hang from the roof of the clubrooms. A major honour board hangs in the corner, dedicated to a late legend (the kind who has the highest club score ever with a whopping 257 in one day of 80 over cricket) who tragically lost his battle with cancer late last year. Photos of mullets and dangling chains from the ’80s adorn team photos of premierships past. History fills the small clubrooms at Lower Eltham.


But we are away from the glory, the reminders of great names in the local district. We sit in the adjacent rooms, with tattered bags and broken lockers surrounding a hub of chairs. The current Barclay Shield side sit with a bunch of yester-year’s finest, ruminating over their worrying predicament. In over 40 years of playing in the Barclay Shield, Lower Eltham is one of three teams never to be relegated.


The club’s banner sits on the roof of their clubrooms.


It’s what makes the 2020/21 season so whacky. Last year the Barclay Shield team made the top four, losing a semi-final clash, while the second XI made a Grand Final. Yet the changed fixture of one-day matches has cruelled us. With only a handful of weeks left in the exhausting season, Lower Eltham are in a rare spot, right down at the foot of the ladder. It’s crisis time – something has to give for our proud streak to continue into 2021/22.


Motivation is renewed. Training brings a hint of desperation. The ‘r’ word looms over Eltham Lower Park like a stormy cloud, threatening to send our small club into a world of hurt. Community clubs depend on remaining in the highest grade for sponsorship, supporters and recruits. To be relegated to the Money Shield could irreversibly damage our junior ranks for years. By the time it picks up and we win our way back into the highest grade, the damage could be well and truly done.


But turning form around in a slump is one of sport’s hardest acts. If it were easy, no one would finish in bottom spot. No coaches would be sacked, nor players dropped. A consistent routine of training twice a week and turning up to be outclassed by another one-day side is easy to slip into, and hard to get out of. It’s a quicksand, sucking Lower Eltham’s tired ankles into its abyss.


Weekends pass. Saturday’s become draining. It’s the same routine; win the toss, bowl first, and struggle. Batters work through the tough parts and flourish in the final 20 overs. Scores balloon from 2/80 to 5/200. Some replying efforts are optimistic, some are dismal. With two weeks and three matches left, we remain a game behind the ninth-placed Plenty.


It will take a miracle to change everything.


We travel to Heidelberg on the second last weekend; an intriguing trip. Heidelberg rose from Money Shield two seasons ago, and were in an imposing position, raring to win the Barclay Shield in their first season in 2019/20. But the COVID interruption reduced the flag to a shared affair. Despite this instant success, they have never beaten us since arriving in Barclay Shield.


Their captain-coach is also a famous Lower Eltham son. Justin Whitcher is a remarkable name at Lower Eltham, one held in the same revere as a god. He has cranked out more runs than anyone, and coached a wealth of emerging youngsters in the process (including yours truly). It’s no surprise his move to Heidelberg coincided with their rapid success. But he hasn’t beaten us, not even when a return to finals action is on the line for them.


We bowl first against them on their wide, slow ground. They are in control, only losing the one early wicket. They are one of only two sides we have beaten this season, and they look set to avoid any further collapses. But something flips, and they fall from a controlling position to a par score of 159 all out.


But Heidelberg are a disciplined bowling unit. They are consistent and sharp in the field. It takes something special to match them. With under ten overs left, we need around six an over with wickets slowly falling. Our two Sri Lankan imports, Dana and Thushara, arrive at the crease almost simultaneously. Both know how to hit a ball, but don’t have the consistency to match their skill. Dana has wide shoulders, and an imperious swing of the bat that sends good length deliveries flying over mid-off and cover with ease. Thushara looks like a child in padding too big for him; his small frame working hard and producing sweeps. They haven’t had their best season, but now is a time when Lower Eltham most yearns for a whirlwind knock.


It starts immediately. Second ball, Dana launches a straight six, flying dead flat like a tracer bullet, inches past the outstretched hand of the long on fielder. The ball, now losing its shine, thuds into the brick wall and bounces back. The umpires’ arms hoist up. We cheer, as nervous as ever.


He does it twice more – two towering sixes that clear fences and take minutes to retrieve. The equation has changed; we’re suddenly in the box seat. The two Sri Lankan imports see us through, attacking opening bowlers and now slicing the winning runs. Lower Eltham have stolen a second win for the season against Heidelberg, damaging their finals chances severely.


We celebrate, thinking we have passed Plenty on percentage. But news trickles through quickly in local cricket. Plenty have won against Macleod. We are still in bottom spot. Relegation hasn’t been avoided yet.


Eltham Lower Park sits just off Eltham’s main road, inviting many in to watch a good day’s cricket.


It comes down to the final weekend. We play Plenty on Saturday; a decider for relegation chances. At home, we bowl first. Standard. We don’t take early wickets, but we don’t get smacked around. They have two batsmen who can take the game away from us. They both threaten, but never quite slam on the runs. The game is on a tight wire; some strong defensive bowling and fielding means Plenty reach 158 when they could’ve posted much more.


But early wickets ruin our run chase. Dana has to go in early, and after a few sixes he falls with ten overs to go. Opening batter (and bowler) Luke Costa works continuously for a second straight half-century, trying to battle through tight bowling. Everything is on the line. Greg Mitchell sits by a table under the awning of the clubrooms, his tattooed leg bouncing on the ground. His face refusing to hide his nerves. Plenty fans pile in the carpark, letting the beer infuse their rowdy supporting.


The overs pass. I retreat to the scoreboard, ticking it over with every run. The third XI have completed another win on the other ground, securing their spot at the top of the ladder. They now take seats behind us, asking me every few minutes for a score update. We pace and jitter.


Plenty possess a powerful weapon in Kenroy Peters, a former West Indian Test bowler. He walks with that great West Indian strut. Powerful shoulders back, content with his skill. His run up is smooth, his release graceful. The ball comes fast, but in the type of controlled manner that worries batters more than the sheer pace. When he bowls, our batters can’t go past a run a ball. The total is slowly etched away.


The equation falls to 33 from four overs. Kenroy bowls another precise over, only giving up five runs. Ray Mitchell bats with Luke. Ray is the third son of Greg, and shares his father’s meaty muscles and deep passion for the club. Plenty’s opening bowler wheels away up the other end – Ray cashes in with a few cut shots that reduce the margin required to 19 off two overs. Plenty quieten down, realising they haven’t won the contest yet.


But Kenroy gives them confidence. He finds the exact same spot of pitch six times in a row, and only singles and twos can be run. We need 11 off the final over; a haunting, daunting prospect that is tantalisingly in the middle. The ball game is in no man’s land. Dog walkers cover the edges of the ground, willing us to finish so they can let their dogs off of their leashes. Some will be genuinely enjoying the nail-biter too.


I’m released of my scoreboard duties by a thirds player, and sent to the fence to join my nervy teammates. The over takes forever. Two – a straight shot down to mid-on. Four. A French cut that narrowly misses stumps and flies past the keeper. We yell it home. Thirds players run to the fence to watch it reach them, colliding with the fence in delight.


Five off three. It’s the perfect start. But a dot on the third ball slows us down. We’re halfway through the final over. Tension hangs in the air; young families stop their small games in the nets to watch. Joggers on the nearby running track slow to a walk to watch the final balls. A cut shot flies off Ray’s bat. It dissects two boundary riders, flying over the line right in front of desperate Plenty fans. Luke and Ray embrace mid pitch, sensing the impending result.


The field comes up. We tremble on the spot, disbelieving of the rapidly changing state of the match. It’s one of the biggest games in Lower Eltham history. Ray finishes it with a third boundary, driving it past mid-on. Luke, finishing on 67 not out, throws off his gear in joy and runs to us. Ray finishes on 40 not out, and joins us in a jubilant hug. Greg yells his heart out from the boundary, his eyes twinkling with pride. The victory song is a wide, messy circle – the also-victorious thirds side join in. Greg is a late inclusion. He is pulled into the group, a beer in hand and a tear in his eye. Many players who have been pulled from other clubs called from retirement don’t remember the words. Greg and I are two of the few who do. We belt it out, mixing between closing our eyes in sweet relief and opening them to soak in the memory.


A historical photo of Lower Eltham’s main oval. Remarkably, it has barely changed to this day (Victorian Collections).


We lose the next day – facing a second-placed Riverside, who are a genuine powerhouse – they are another of the big three never to drop down from Barclay Shield. They have five of their seven sides in finals spots. Their best batter is Steve Villani, who is the brother of Victorian and Southern Stars batter Elyse Villani. Steve bats left-handed, but plays golf the other way – it makes for a breathtaking reverse shot that sends pace bowlers and spinners alike into the close confines of the creek often. They bat first – we start brilliantly. Early wickets keep us on top. Riverside struggle on their small and fast ground. But Villani comes in, and with ex-Premier Cricket star Chris Salm they post a powerful score just under 200.


We fight hard, trying to defy Salm’s rapid pace and their array of nifty bowlers. They have their annual $5,000 draw on in the rooms upstairs. Rowdy members who have started mid-morning are on the deck by early afternoon, cheering loudly and ripping into any Lower Eltham batter who returns early. Constant wickets ruin our effort – we soon keep one eye on the live stream of Plenty’s clash while watching us grimly hold onto our wickets, and thus our percentage.


Our middle order stonewalls Riverside, neglecting the pursuit of a high-scoring chase and instead keeping our wickets intact. Mini cheers erupt from the scorers’ table every ten minutes when Plenty rapidly lose wickets in their pursuit of avoiding DVCA’s top-level purgatory. With five overs to go in our match, Plenty have lost. We stand, relieved to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Smiles return. Sighs exhale. Satisfied hugs and high-fives are low-key compared to the previous day’s theatrics. It’s not something to celebrate, but it’s something to be proud of. We pat out the remaining overs for a loss (not by a massive amount, but without ever really challenging) and reflect on a rapid finish to a tough season.


Lower Eltham survive on percentage – roughly 0.17 per cent to be exact. In a dramatic final two weeks, Lower Eltham produce two memorable wins to climb over Plenty and avoid the drop. It’s been a tough season for us – there’s been weeks of hating cricket, of dreading the Saturday morning before another mundane day full of defeat. There’s been some positives, and some hope that has glimmered at certain turns of the year. But the underdog heart of Lower Eltham has shone through once again. It could take years to see the impact it’ll have on our small club.



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  1. Nice way to keep the club’s record going.

    The loss. The numbers which gave rise to the tiny percentage margin!

    Enjoyed the piece – I think many cricketers would recognise some of those archetypes and also those moments.

  2. Hayden Kelly says

    Good yarn Sean
    i observed similar unfold at the weekend . Keilor a club which has avoided relegation and won lots of flags were on the bottom of the VTCA senior ladder and scrambled a win against Sunshine Druids to go from bottom to 3rd bottom . Two sides are relegated and the percentile difference was .18 .
    I think they may still be toasting Robbie Clements a local lad [9 in the team] who made 101 out of 146 to get them over the line .

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